Saudi Arabia Arrests Citizens for Anti-Israel Posts as US Pushes Normalization Deal

Saudi Arabia arrests citizens for anti-Israel social media posts as US works towards Saudi-Israel normalization deal, highlighting the country's crackdown on dissent despite recent reforms.

Shivani Chauhan
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Saudi Arabia Arrests Citizens for Anti-Israel Posts as US Pushes Normalization Deal

Saudi Arabia Arrests Citizens for Anti-Israel Posts as US Pushes Normalization Deal

Saudi Arabia has arrested citizens for anti-Israel social media posts amid concerns over regional instability, as the United States works towards a Saudi-Israel normalization deal. The kingdom has been cracking down on even vaguely critical online speech, with the judiciary convicting and handing down lengthy prison terms to dozens of individuals for their expression on social media.

In a recent high-profile case, Manahel al-Otaibi, a 29-year-old Saudi fitness instructor and women's rights activist, was secretly sentenced to 11 years in prison following her November 2022 arrest. She was convicted for what the Saudi government called "terrorist offenses" and urging an end to male guardianship rules. Human rights groups say the conviction was due to her advocacy for liberal dress codes, LGBTQ+ rights, and the abolition of Saudi Arabia's male guardianship laws.

Other activists have also been arrested for denouncing Saudi rules or following dissidents on social media. Nourah al-Qahtani, a mother-of-five, had her prison term escalated from six-and-a-half years to 45 years for critical Twitter posts. Salma al-Shehab, a member of Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority, was sentenced to 27 years in prison and banned from traveling abroad for 27 years for allegedly aiding dissidents by sharing their tweets.

Why this matters: These cases highlight the limits of expression in Saudi Arabia, even as the country has lifted some restrictions on women's lives under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The arrests come as the U.S. works towards a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, despite concerns over the kingdom's human rights record.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have formulated a series of pacts regarding security, technology exchange, and civil nuclear energy development, initially intended to be part of a larger Middle East resolution involving Israel and the Palestinians. However, due to the lack of a ceasefire in Gaza and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to a Palestinian state, Saudi Arabia is now advocating for a scaled-down Plan B that does not involve Israel.

Under this plan, the US and Saudi Arabia would enter into bilateral agreements, including a defense pact, assistance in developing Saudi Arabia's civil nuclear energy sector, and cooperation in advanced technologies like artificial intelligence. In exchange, Saudi Arabia would offer to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel if it accepts the two-state solution.

While the Biden administration's aspirations for a significant regional settlement may not materialize immediately, forging a strong strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia could help counter the growing influence of China and Russia in the region. Saudi Arabia is considering normalizing relations with Israel but would only demand guarantees on progress towards achieving a Palestinian state in return.

Amnesty International has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Manahel al-Otaibi, stating that the charges are related to her exercise of freedom of expression and not "terrorist offences as claimed by the Saudi government. The UN human rights office has not yet responded to requests for comment on the details of her case, which highlights the Saudi government's continued crackdown on dissent and its "chilling commitment to silencing peaceful dissent", despite recent reforms related to women's rights in the country.

Key Takeaways

  • Saudi Arabia arrests citizens for anti-Israel social media posts amid normalization talks.
  • Activists sentenced to lengthy prison terms for criticizing Saudi rules and policies.
  • US works towards Saudi-Israel normalization deal despite Saudi's human rights concerns.
  • Saudi Arabia advocates for a scaled-down plan that excludes Israel from regional agreements.
  • Amnesty calls for release of activist jailed for exercising free speech, not terrorism.